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Experts See Dim Future For Laws Against Anonymous Comments

March 14, 2008

In the wake of the suicide of 13-year-old MySpace member Megan Meier, officials are stepping up efforts to crack down on online bullying.

In the latest example, Kentucky state legislator Tim Couch has proposed a bill that would ban anonymous comments on boards or message boards. Among other provisions, the act, introduced this month, would demand that operators of blogs or message boards require commenters to register their names, addresses and e-mail addresses.

But civil liberties advocates say that such legislation, no matter how well-intentioned, violates First Amendment rights to free speech. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that people have the right to speak anonymously, said Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. While that right isn't absolute--judges, for instance, can order the disclosure of users' identities when they've defamed someone--courts also have protected online commenters' anonymity in numerous cases.

"There's certainly an impulse, a desire on the part of various people across the spectrum to try to pierce the anonymity of online speakers," Zimmerman said. But, he added, courts turn down such requests unless there are solid legal grounds to order disclosure. "You have to demonstrate that there's a reason to do it other than wanting to know."

Friday, March 14, 2008
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